Every Writer Needs a Platform—Here’s How You Can Build Yours

by David Cathcart

David Cathcart - Christian Book Editor and Screenplay Editor

What is a writer’s platform, and why is it so important? To answer the first question, your platform is your ability to draw attention to your name and your work. For example, are you a public speaker? Do you have a large following on your blog, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or other forms of social media? Do you hold a prominent post at an academic institution or in a well-known company? Are you often quoted in the media as an expert in your field? Have you been part of some sort of significant event that made the news? Do you have famous friends who are willing to endorse your book? Better yet, are you a celebrity yourself? These are all examples of activities and positions that help to create a platform from which you are able to sell your book.

Why is your platform so important? Simple: The more visible you are to the public, the more likely it is that your book will sell. That’s why practically every celebrity has a book deal of some sort. The book doesn’t have to be all that good; it just needs to have the celebrity’s name and face on the cover. Publishers are banking on the hope that name recognition alone will make the project profitable. With margins shrinking and bookstores disappearing, developing a strong platform is more important than ever, because the more time and effort you’ve put into promoting yourself and your work, the less time, effort and, most importantly, money, your publisher will have to put into it.

Chances are, you’re not a celebrity. So how can you begin developing your platform? Here are a few tips.

  1. Start a blog: With WordPress, Typepad, Tumbler, and all sorts of other free blogging platforms out there, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t be blogging. Don’t just blog about yourself though. Post excerpts of your work, links to articles of interest, interviews, anything that provides valuable content to your potential readers. You may even want to serialize your book on your blog. That’s a great way to test-drive the material while also building a following. And how about seeking out guest-blogging opportunities? Ask a well-known blogger do a guest piece for your blog and vice versa.
  2. Get active on social media: You don’t need to be on every social media platform, but Facebook and Twitter are a must. What you’re trying to do here is build a community around your work. This is a shoo-in for non-fiction writers, because all you have to do is find groups built around your subject matter. It’s a little more challenging for fiction writers, but learning to navigate your way around social media is a must. Like blogging, this isn’t just about calling attention to yourself and your work. It’s about contributing to the conversation and building community. Make it your goal to provide a steady stream of valuable and engaging information to your followers so they don’t feel like all you’re doing is shameless self-promotion. I spend close to an hour a day on my blog and social media.
  3. Brush up on your public speaking skills: Jerry Seinfeld once said that for many people, the only thing they fear more than death is public speaking—which means at a funeral, they would rather be the one in the coffin than the person giving the eulogy. Fair enough, but if you’re going to make it as a writer, you need to become comfortable talking about your work. If you really struggle with this, consider joining a group like Toastmasters, which will help you improve your skills. And when anyone asks you why you joined, you can tell him you’re preparing for your career as a writer, which is another way of raising your profile. And start small. If you’re a parent, perhaps you can give a presentation on writing to your child’s class. If you’re part of a faith community, maybe you can teach a class on writing there. Or maybe there’s a slot for you at the local writer’s conference. Teaching is another great opportunity. I’ve been a teacher almost as long as I’ve been a writer. Over the years, I’ve developed my own shtick, and I continue to teach at a number of writing schools and conferences across North America, in Europe and Australia. Roman Polanski said he never turned down an invitation for sex or to appear on television. You should take the same approach to speaking engagements. No gig is too large or too small.
  4. Get your name in the paper: Local media is one of the best places to start out as a writer. Letters to the editor, editorials and freelance pieces are all possibilities. Think about it: This is how Stephen King got started. But don’t limit yourself to local media. Pursue opportunities to get your name in print in larger publications as well. If you’re a fiction writer, set your sights on literary journals or other periodicals that feature short stories. One example from my own career: When I was trying to break in as a screenwriter, I pitched an idea to a national Christian publication about profiling people of faith who worked in the film industry. It was a great way not only to get my name in print but also to network with all sorts of people in the world of film, some of whom I still know today. And don’t restrict yourself to print. Think about radio and television. Reporters are always looking for stories about local people who are attempting to do something unique.
  5. Launch a crowdfunding campaign: That’s right, I’m talking about Kickstarter or Indiegogo. This may seem an odd approach for someone who wants to get published, but I see more and more writers doing it these days. Not only can it potentially help raise some capital that will allow you the time you need to finish your book, it is a great way to build a community of people who are literally invested in you and your work. Your success is their success, too.
  6. Develop “fame by association”: We’ve all heard of “guilt by association,” but fame is something that can rub off as well. This is another way of encouraging you to network, network, network. If you’re on a plane and someone asks what you do, I don’t care if you’re a software programmer or a police officer or a baker by day. Tell the person you’re a writer. And then give him or her your card (You do have a card, don’t you?). Do you know anyone famous—even slightly famous? If you don’t, do you know someone who does? If so, how might you leverage that relationship in a way that helps draw attention to you and your work? I’m not talking about exploiting someone. But perhaps you can use that connection to wrangle an endorsement, for example, or possibly a mention in their Twitter feed. Again, be creative. And always ask yourself: What do you have to offer this person in return?

These are just a few suggestions. I could write an entire book on this topic, although I wouldn’t dare, because the opportunities and promotion platforms are changing so fast that many of my ideas would already be out of date by the time the book made it to print. However, although the platforms may change, the central principle does not: If you are as creative about promoting your work as you are in writing it, perhaps one day all it will take to sell your book is your name and smiling face on the cover.